Posts Tagged ‘Halacha’

Elu V’Elu: Sometimes there’s more than one right answer

November 9, 2015 Leave a comment
NOTE: This entry was cross-posted at Jewish Values Online.
People often ask me questions like: What does Reform Judaism say about the afterlife? Do Reform Jews have to keep kosher? Are Reform Jews allowed to drive on Shabbat?
In many cases, the answer to these questions is: “It depends.”
Among the central values of Reform Judaism is pluralism – the idea that there can be multiple approaches, multiple answers, multiple ways to be Jewish. How could there be more than one right answer? Well, the Reform movement’s 1999 Platform states:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
In other words, our fulfillment of the ritual mitzvot is based around a thoughtful process of study and decision making. When a mitzvah speaks to us, we find ways to fulfill it meaningfully. When it doesn’t, we are entitled to respectfully leave it, or “reform” it based on the needs of modern life.
This is, obviously, a very different approach from Orthodox or even Conservative Judaism. Much more individualized. Certainly more flexible. And in some ways much more challenging, since there is no single, agreed-upon “right way” to do things. In fact, this kind of thinking can lead us to practice or think in ways that are very different from our fellow Reform Jews.
Within my congregation, for example, there are all kinds of approaches to keeping kosher. There are multiple views of the nature of God. There are women who wear a kippah and men who don’t, and vice versa. In Reform Judaism, the “right” practice is the one that you’ve chosen based on your honest assessment of tradition and of modernity.
The idea that there can be more than one right way to observe Jewish traditions is not new. The Talmud records (Eruvin 13b):
For three years there were disputes between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. Beit Shammai claimed “The law agrees with us,” and Beit Hillel claimed “The law agrees with us.” Then, a voice came from heaven and said: “Both are the words of the living God, but the law agrees with Beit Hillel.
The law agrees with Hillel’s students, we are told shortly thereafter, because of their kindness and modesty. But not necessarily because their opinion is inherently more correct than that of Shammai. In other words, sometimes there can be more than one right answer to a Jewish question.
Reform Judaism is built on the idea that those differing opinions can live side-by-side – that we can pray and study and build community with each other without necessarily believing or practicing in all of the same ways. And, even more so, that diversity and pluralism actually make our community stronger.

Building an Inclusive Jewish Community

May 14, 2014 1 comment

Both as a rabbi and as a parent, it is important to me that Judaism be inclusive of people with special needs. Today, more and more, young people who have Autism, Aspergers, Down’s Syndrome, and other similar challenges are being encouraged to participate to their full potential in Jewish life!

Purely by coincidence, I’ve had the privilege twice in the last 2 months to speak on this topic – first at the annual convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and then as part of a local Toronto panel organized by DANI. Both times, the topic was on the traditional Jewish law surrounding inclusion and on how to build the most inclusive Jewish community possible today.

For those who may be interested, here are the videos from those two events:

Thanks for watching!


Reform and Conservative Judaism… What’s the Difference?

January 2, 2010 7 comments

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas has an interesting article in the New York Jewish Week entitled “The Re-founding of Conservative Judaism,” in which he argues that Conservative Judaism has outgrown its historical reasons for existence and needs a “re-founding” based on community organizing. He’s probably right. But as a Reform rabbi, it got me to thinking about the Jewish denominations. In recent years, I have become more and more convinced that the differences between Reform and Conservative are shrinking, and that interdenominationalism will be an important trend in the future.

I’m not here to rail against organized religion (it wouldn’t be good for my career!) or to disparage religious movements. The various Jewish movements play an important role in organizing the Jewish world, providing resources, educating leadership. My question is: Is there still a distinctive social or ideological gap between the Reform and Conservative movements?

Historically there have been at least three (and probably more) important distinctions:

  • The ethnic: Reform Judaism was founded by German Jews, who were more highly assimilated and were looking for a more assimilated Judaism. The earliest Conservative Jews were largely immigrants from Eastern Europe who were interested in more traditional Judaism in an American context).
  • The ritual: Reform initially rejected a number of traditional practices – such as kashrut and kippah – that were aesthetically or ideologically out of sync with modernity, while Conservative maintained them (partly because they provided a sense of Jewish authenticity).
  • The ideological: Conservative Judaism remains halachic – i.e. it continues to embrace the binding nature of Jewish law (though with modern principles taken into account) – while Reform affirms that halacha is nonbinding or optional.

There is truth to all of these. There is no question that German-dominated Reform Judaism was quick to discard ritual that many Eastern European Jews found necessary/meaningful/ endearing/nostalgic/authentic. The Conservative movement probably owes its existence to that fact. But it is a largely irrelevant fact so many generations later. Today, if anything, the Reform world is moving toward the right, taking on Hebrew prayer, rituals like kippah, mikveh, and aspects of kashrut.

It is also true that the Conservative movement continues to speak in the language of halacha (it has a law committee and teshuvot) while Reform speaks in the language of personal autonomy and individual choice. But even here, the divide is not so wide. The Conservative movement has always referred to itself as “Positive-Historical Judaism” – i.e. Judaism that is rooted in divine revelation (which is the meaning here of the word “positive”), and simultaneously shaped by historical evolution. But Reform Judaism similarly embraces the notion that Judaism is based both on eternal divine (however you define it) commands – the ethical mitzvot – and on historically evolving culture and folkways – the ritual mitzvot. From the 1999 Pitsburgh Principles of Reform Judaism:

We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. Some of these mitzvot, sacred obligations, have long been observed by Reform Jews; others, both ancient and modern, demand renewed attention as the result of the unique context of our own times.

Furthermore, the Reform movement has a Responsa Committee, which deliberates and makes decisions on matters of Jewish law in a Reform context. The difference is that those responsa are nonbinding, intended to provide guidance for the Jew in choosing his or her own practice. The Reform way to talk about Jewish tradition is to use the language of “Choice Through Knowledge” – we make choices about our ritual practice based on our study and our understanding of the meanings of those traditions. Contrary to the notion that Reform is “non-halachic,” I believe that this is a type of halachic process. And let’s be honest – Conservative Jews also make choices. Conservative rabbis know this, which is why they often operate on the assumption that the more knowledge their congregants amass, the more they will choose to fulfill the mitzvot.

So while differences between the two movements remain, I think it’s more useful to think of a continuum of liberal Judaism that includes the Conservative and Reform movements with significance points of connection between them. Every continuum has its extremes, but there is too much in common here to think of them as being really separate.

What do you think?

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